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Around the Jewish World a Decade Later, Group Unites Jews from FSU and Asia-pacific Regions

March 15, 2002
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Eleven years ago, with Jews streaming out of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Chlenov proposed creating a group that would be a political advocate for Jews in the former Soviet Union and represent them at the World Jewish Congress.

The plan was a hard sell at the time, as most international Jewish groups were more concerned with helping Jews leave the former Soviet Union than with the future of those who chose to stay in the region.

Yet Chlenov, head of the Va’ad, a Russian Jewish umbrella group, finally saw his wish fulfilled. Last week, his proposal came to fruition in modified form with the creation of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.

At a two-day conference in Moscow, the congress was officially resurrected with the support of the World Jewish Congress and Jewish leaders from the Far East, the Pacific region, Australia and the former Soviet Union.

Conspicuously absent from the new congress’ delegation was the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Former Soviet Union, the largest Jewish organization in the area.

“The past 10 years were really a decade of transition,” the secretary-general of the WJC, Avi Beker, said, referring specifically to Jews in the former Soviet Union. “The event is really important because it is the first time” Jews in the region “have made an umbrella structure that will be active on the political scene.”

The congress will be led by Kazakh businessman Alexander Mashkevich, 48, who will serve as the body’s president. Mashkevich is co-founder of the Kazakhstan Mineral Resources Corporation, chairman of the Eurasian Bank and president of the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan.

Mashkevich said the new congress has an important role to play in the enormous territory. Some 2.3 million Jews, active in 1,500 organizations, are estimated to live in the Euro-Asian region, most of them in the former Soviet Union.

“Until now there hasn’t been an organization that coordinated, united and formulated the goals of the entire region,” he said. “There were not enough links in the chain, and we’re creating these links.”

He hopes the formation of the congress will allow communities to communicate more clearly with international organizations like the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the WJC.

These links to international Jewry would allow the group to develop new programs, including educational and exchange programs, those that aid victims of the Holocaust and other repression and others that monitor anti-Semitism.

Chlenov, who will serve as secretary-general for the new organization, said it also would foster dialogue and organize interfaith programs with members of the various religions in the region, specifically with Muslims in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. The Jewish communities in all those countries are members of the new congress.

“We also hope very soon to establish relations with Iran and Syria,” he said.

At least one Jewish activist is skeptical that the group will accomplish much.

“It’s 10 years they have been talking of this Eurasian Union,” said Semyon Avgustevich, a veteran Jewish activist from Moscow. “Now they are creating an empty shell without a real stuffing.”

The formation of the congress appears to have resulted from two factors.

The first is Beker’s interest in bringing communities from the former Soviet Union closer to the WJC to fill what he calls a “missing link” in the group’s global operations.

The second factor is what Chlenov called an “impulse for unity” in the past few months in the Jewish community of Russia, which has the largest Jewish population in the area and where large Jewish groups have been publicly at odds in the past. He cited a change of leadership at the Russian Jewish Congress as one factor helping to improve relations among Russia’s many Jewish groups.

“We have to be like one fist, all Jews” working together, said Aleksandr Sharovsky, vice chairman of the Jewish community of Baku, Azerbaijan.

Beker had invited Chlenov to put together a delegation to last fall’s WJC assembly in Jerusalem, which was charged with electing the group’s leadership. But disagreements over representation in the former Soviet Union’s delegation to the WJC assembly have kept the powerful Federation of Jewish Communities out of the new body.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the federation, said the federation requested that the WJC allow it to bring more than the 12 delegates allotted last fall.

According to Chlenov, who formed the delegation, there were 70 individuals in the delegation.

The WJC’s Beker said he thinks the federation “got its fair share” of delegates to that assembly.

“We don’t always” give more delegates “to bigger or larger groups,” Beker said. “We are looking for organizations that are involved in the political life of the community as well as religious affairs.”

Negotiations on the federation’s membership in the congress are said to have continued up until the day before last week’s founding conference.

Sources say the federation insisted either that its president, Israeli diamond mogul Lev Leviev, be given a co-leadership role with Mashkevich, or that the congress have no president. The federation also demanded that it receive half of the congress’ delegates to the WJC assembly, the sources said.

The federation says Leviev’s name was never an issue in the negotiations, but that it insisted that the new congress be led by two or three people — one of whom would be nominated by the federation.

Berkowitz, of the federation, also said the group is upset that closed-door negotiations were leaked to the public.

Still, both congress officials and the federation say they hope to cooperate in the future.

“We are very positive in every way in welcoming the initiative,” Berkowitz said. “Since there is so much work to be done, we hope and pray that quality partners will emerge who assist with the development and growth of the Jewish communities in the FSU.”

The congress seconded his sentiments.

“We intend to work together and not exclusively so that later in the future the federation will send delegates to the congress,” Mashkevich said.

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